This article is a continuation of Getting Solid Rec Letters: Part I
Seal the deal
Ok you’ve made friends with this mentor. Now it’s time for rec letter writing. When do you ask for it, what do you ask for, and how do you ask for it? Don’t reveal that you want them to write you the rec letter until the time comes. That is, don’t introduce yourself on Day 1 and say “Hi, will you be my mentor? I really want you to get to know me and write me a rec letter next year.” No. Instead, ask them when the time is appropriate (give them at least 6 weeks to write the letter before it’s due; people hate it when you rush them and this letter needs to be solid gold). It should be a pleasant surprise when you ask them, not a “I knew it…”
Be straightforward about it and don’t get awkward. Tell them why you’re asking them (they’re someone who knows you well, who has seen you mature in your undergrad years, and can add value to your application by talking about XYZ qualities/experiences you have) and tell them how much you’ll appreciate having them recommend you. If all goes well, they’ll be flattered. Invite them to write it but give them the implicit option to decline, i.e. ask them if they would be willing to write you a rec letter. They have to be free and comfortable saying no. Because if they would say no, they’re not the person you want writing your letter.
Congratulations! They accepted your invitation. Make sure to tell them they have plenty of time to write it and it’s not due for a while. Next, tell them you’ll give them more information about the letter. Go home and put together a cheatsheet for them. Make it very concise and to the point. It needs to answer the following questions:
1. Briefly, why you chose them
2. Specific questions they need to address (if any)
3. The angle from which you want them to approach writing about you, referencing specific examples they could use.
This is a really important item because if you have multiple recommenders, you don’t want them all writing about how you’re smart and ignoring how you’re dedicated and empathetic. Suppose you have 3 people and you want your application to emphasize 3 key qualities. Well, simple: assign a each quality to the recommender who can best talk about it and have them focus on that. Reference specific experiences or things you want them to talk about (this has to be things they’re familiar with). Your goal is to proactively guide the rec letter to paint a complete picture of yourself. Your rec letters are a chance to really emphasize certain qualities you want the adcom to know about you, or perhaps even to remedy weak areas of your application (say your GPA is low; have the person write about how brilliant and creative you really are).
Nothing is worse than using people as a means to an end. They wrote your letter and now you… cast them by the wayside? No! This leaves a bad taste in people’s mouth and they know when they’ve been used. It can haunt you down the road if you a) ever need them to back you up in the future or b) they’re disgruntled enough to complain about you to the med school. Worse, it’s just bad taste. These are people who care about you. Presumably, you care about them too. Keep them updated on how you’re doing at various stages of the process. Even once you start med school, keep in touch every once in a while to catch up. Practice this kind of relationship building now because you’ll need it in your career as a physician. Also, write a thank-you card (once the app is submitted; not months down the road).